Medellin, Colombia is a city with a past. A dangerous past. A city of people with great pride, they call themselves Paisas. Paisas feel they are different from the rest of the Colombians, because of their history that is intertwined with Medellin. They have seen the worst and now they have seen the best. They have lived with the horror of Pablo Escobar, the FARC, barrio warlords, gang leaders, unimaginable violence. They have a past that lies dormant in their memories of what Medellin used to be like, something we Americans can never understand. After moving here I saw a different world view, one I hold inside my heart. But now they have stability while the tourism industry has grown 260% since 2002. They are very proud to live in Medellin, but they are still getting used to having foreign people come to visit this once very uncontrollable city. They have those horrible memories that will never leave them.
Sergio Farjado mayor of Medellin from 2003 to 2007 started the talks about improving Medellin beginning with the poorest areas. A bottom up strategy that has worked. I had two wonderful tour guides while visiting Medellin and both were from the poorest areas, they had many stories to tell. Most importantly, they both were not old, Manny was in his mid-thirties and Camillo was around 23 or 24 years old. They both used what was offered by the government to improve their lives. Both are successful and proudly independent, not wanting to take anything more from the government. They are truly proud Paisas.
My first guide Manny was from a barrio that has been transformed with escalators to allow the poorest to reach public transportation easily. To be able to get to work without the steep climb up and down the mountains. He told stories of the area we visited. Manny remembered the army had to use helicopters to begin projects in these areas as they were so dangerous. He spoke of dead bodies being placed outside the homes planted with grenades so the police and military could not enter to help the populations of these poverty-stricken areas. They couldn’t even remove the bodies to bury them. It was quite sad to hear this from someone who actually witnessed such brutality. But with persistence the truly needy and their homes have been reinvented. Manny said many innocent lives were lost. However, now the violence is replaced with libraries throughout these areas, programs for the poor to send them to school, to give them loans to start businesses. Every public park in Medellin has free WiFi. Colombia and especially Medellin has shown you can take the people from the most needy areas and give them a reason to break the chain of violence and drugs. The above photos show the images posted in an office at the top of the barrio I visited, before and after transformations. Here is a video I took of the ascent to the top. You will see the street art which is used all over Colombia as a way of expression to show the past and the new future. This street art is a favorite part of my love of Colombia. I love to see color, a lot of color. I also love light, not darkness. The homes are so bright and cheery in these under privileged areas.
Colombia is spending millions on infrastructure to improve all the big cities. Cali, Colombia which is closest to Villa Migelita , my Bed and Breakfast, is transforming areas also. What is really fantastic is that all the walking areas throughout the large cities in Colombia, have a strip in the middle of the sidewalk for the blind to guide them. Wonderful, thoughtful ideas are being implemented! Unlike the USA, Colombia is not using the tired line of trickle down economics of the rich vs the poor. Colombia is showing the world that improving and giving to the poor is a way to get the whole economy thriving and raising people up to achieve great things! Medellin alone went from 40,000 tourists in the year 2010 to over 4 million visitors in 2016. I arrived in Colombia to live in 2011. It is not difficult to get a Visa to live here. The only thing that needs to be emphasized is that Colombians are super polite people. They do not want to offend anyone, but they are noticing the bad behavior of some tourists. Check out this photo.. Please, thank you and a nice greeting in Spanish really impresses all Colombians.
Another amazing part of Medellin is the super fast metro system built during very turbulent times in Medellin, also the cable car system is phenomenal. While in the city I used this metro and cable car system more than taxis! Wonderfully clean, because no one will destroy what they are so proud of! If disabled, older, or pregnant, a seat is offered immediately by all who are nearby. I watched and observed the behavior of everyone. I am so proud to live in this country as an expat.
A tip to those visiting Medellin. Use the free walking tour offered by Real City Tours. My guide Camillo was fantastic. He was informed and educated. He is from the poor barrios, but has a degree in bio-medical engineering. He is bi-lingual, he is charming, and he is making money taking these tours around his city of Medellin. He is what we should strive to be in this chaotic world. I cannot say enough about his intelligence, drive and knowledge. He rose from poverty to become a part of sharing the history of Colombia’s success, and also his success. I often say to those who make fun of other’s accents, “Do you speak another language?” “Can you rise from a past that had you living in violence to having a college degree?” “Are you successful?” I think success is based on what you accomplish, not just money. I told Camillo, you must make your family so proud. He was so modest, so polite, and so intelligent.
Camillo would make any mother proud and I told him so. He was delightful, smart and fluent in English because the Colombian government gave him a chance to become all that he could be! I was so impressed with his stories and the walking tour. It is free, and a tip is your price. Again I emphasize, be kind, be generous, and enjoy the culture of Colombia. Don’t be cheap because you can be. I had that happen with recent guests. They ignored my lovely and hard-working maid after 33 days of being cared for by her. I will never allow that to happen again. Please remember to give thanks to those that give you good service here in Colombia. We don’t tip like in the USA. However, tips are to be given to those that become part of your stay, part of your journey.
The last part of our walking tour was at a park for concerts in Medellin. This square also features the art of the artist Fernando Botero. In these last photos I will show there was a lesson present. A bomb blew up his sculpture of The Bird in the 1990’s. This bomb killed a little girl and more than thirty people. The perpetrator was never found. The Colombian government wanted the sculpture immediately removed. But the President of Colombia received an important phone call from Botero himself. He said “leave it there to remind all to fight against this terrorism” So they did. It is a reminder to all who live in Medellin of their past. One they need to remember as the future unfolds with the prosperity and growth of Medellin. Colombia is now a thriving and innovative country. A country of proud people with a past they would like to forget, but never will. We are the future. People like me, an American who lives here in Colombia and is showing the world that a terrible past can evolve to a wonderful future. Maybe that is why I feel so at home in Colombia. I know the past does not define who you are.